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Eyes in the sky: Growing prevalence of drones a plus for some, privacy concern for others

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SALT LAKE CITY — These days, almost anyone can put an eye in the sky with a new generation of drones — tiny, unmanned aircraft.

While a recent Congressional order directing the FAA to loosen restrictions on drones will certainly mean spectacular imagery, it's also raising concerns over privacy.

In addition to military drones that pick out targets and track down terrorists, there are amazing civilian drones thanks to evolving technology.

A bonus to business

Ryan Fisher, a local photographer, recently met up with us at the Lehi Model Airplane Park in Lehi to show off some of that technology.

The first drone he showed us was a tiny chopper with a standard GoPro camera. "It's safe and reliable, so it can be used in all sorts of different applications," Fisher explained.

He uses it as a highly mobile camera platform, shooting for outfits like Discovery Channel and National Geographic. With precision remote-control, he can even fly it inside a building if he wants.

"What's great about the technology in the last few years is it's become so light and so small, and actually affordable," Fisher said.

What's great about the technology in the last few years is it's become so light and so small, and actually affordable.

–Ryan Fisher, photographer

A research aid and moreIn Cache Valley, you may sometimes see a flying wing, operated by Utah State University. It flies a pre-programmed flight plan, taking pictures with two different cameras.

"Basically, we take the images afterwards and we can make maps and all sorts of things, much like hwat you can see on Google Earth," explained USU research engineer Austin Jensen.

It's an academic drone, flying for the sake of science and agriculture. Jensen said it's used mostly in "ecological or environmental applications."

"A lot of what we do is over rivers and wetlands, mapping vegetation, looking at habitat for different types of animals," he said.

But if you think this exhausts the possible uses of drones, think again. Did you ever want to fly like a bird over some of the most gorgeous scenery anywhere? With a drone, you can be that bird, plunging from clifftops like there's no tomorrow.

Drones also provide an awesome way to show off real estate; a more intimate view of buildings and landscaping than you'd get from a helicopter with a pilot.

You want sports photography? A drone can practically put you on an athlete's shoulder.

Promotional videos? Drones can give you can get the expensive Hollywood look without cranes and dollies — simply, quickly, cheaply.

And speaking of movies, a drone can definitely spark up the action, moving with the characters almost wherever they go, even if it's in and out of a building.

Privacy concerns

In the age of computers that can coordinate swarms of drones, the only limit on possible uses is the furthest reach of your imagination.

On a more obvious, practical level, drones can go where humans wouldn't dare, like Japan's heavily damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. Think of all the ways drones could be used in emergencies, or when lives need to be saved.

Our privacy laws are not strong enough to insure that new technology will be used responsibly.

–Karen McCreary, ACLU of Utah

"From law enforcement, SWAT teams, it gives you an eye in the sky, a perspective that nobody else can see," Fisher said.

The American Civil Liberties Union accepts there are valuable uses, but the organization wants public discussion before law enforcement eyes in the sky threaten constitutional rights.

"Our privacy laws are not strong enough to insure that new technology will be used responsibly," said Karen McCreary, executive director of the ACLU of Utah. "We shouldn't have the watchful eye of the government upon us all the time."

At the moment, Utah law enforcement agencies are not considering drone activity. But what if businesses, news organizations, private eyes are peering down?

"Using technologies to spy on one another; I mean, that's a kind of society I think I don't want to live in," McCreary said.

"I personally haven't had any issues with people having privacy issues with our plane," Jensen said. "But mostly we're not flying over cities. We're out in the middle of nowhere."

At the moment, safety regulations are the biggest obstacle for drones. Fisher says FAA regulations are too restrictive and too vague, unlike other countries where he flies his drones regularly.

"It's so unfortunate that there's restrictions on this that have put several companies out of business, that I'm aware of," Fisher said.

But Things seem to be on the verge of change. Congress ordered the FAA to come up with new drone regulations by 2015.

"I think there's enough interest. Enough people want this sort of technology, and want it to work out, that we'll figure out a way to make it safe for everyone," Jensen said. Current regulations allow hobby drones, as long as they're below 400 feet and not too close to airports.

Researchers and law enforcement can apply for special permission. But for commercial drones, deciding what's safe and appropriate is a process that's already stretched on for years.


John Hollenhorst


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